I thought it ironic to hear people saying that the Met’s recent production of Two Boys was already outdated because of its ten-year-old subject: Internet chatrooms. I found Nico Muhly’s cyber-thriller much more relatable than classics like Rigoletto, the story of the cursed hunchback and his innocent daughter Gilda – especially after seeing another recent Met production, this time Michael Mayer’s glitzed-up Rigoletto on Monday evening. Verdi’s well-loved opera is chock-full of racism and misogyny, and situating this timeless tale in 1960s Las Vegas only adds to the disorientation. Monday night’s première of this production’s second season in repertory would have come across as prematurely antiquated if it hadn’t been for the fresh, full singing and extraordinary conducting.

© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
© Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

Instead of 16th-century Mantua, the opera took place in Las Vegas in 1960, which we discerned immediately thanks to Christine Jones’ snazzy sets. The stage was dark during the prelude, with only silhouette letters spelling out words like “jackpot” against the back curtain. Then suddenly the backdrop was ignited with lights and motion; the cut-out shapes were now flashing loudly. It was a spectacular spectacle. The chorus was clad in equally impeccable costumes by Susan Hilferty: bright colors and tacky flounces for the women and sharp suits to match slicked-back hair on the men. Though it was odd to watch Gilda and the Duke duetting in front of neon palm trees, the sets and costumes kept my interest for the duration of the opera. This held true even during the final act – set in “a seedy club on the outskirts of Las Vegas” rather than a street outside Sparafucile’s house – which incorporated a pole (for dancing) and the trunk of a car (for Gilda’s body).

Modern retellings of Verdi can work (Willy Decker’s La Traviata in particular). But this version became problematic as too many liberties were taken with the libretto and therefore with the story itself. Sometimes the rewordings on our “Met titles” were merely cringeworthy: “Every heart in this joint will be beating for you”. Sometimes they were funny: “Easy now, fella!” or “That man is a dreamboat!” And sometimes they were distractingly incongruous: “My engine’s all revved up”, followed seconds later by “Surrender to the madness of love”. Frank Sinatra didn’t have a court jester to boss around, so Rigoletto’s role is unclear. Despite my familiarity with Italian (and Verdi), I found myself unable to focus and continually baffled by these inconsistencies, which clashed not only with the original libretto but sometimes even with the score.

There are, luckily, moments where the characters’ inner turmoil can be glimpsed amid the strobe lights. In Act II, as Rigoletto begs the Duke and his gang to “give an old man his daughter”, the chorus of sparkly-jacketed men appears chastened with mild shame, and Rigoletto’s sense of loss, whether he deserves it or not, is heart-wrenching. But these moments of legitimate emotion are few and far between. In spite of the visual excitement of the production and the aural anguish of the music, there isn’t really much happening. The directing was often lively and fun, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Nonetheless, the music saved itself. The singing was excellent throughout: as the Duke, Matthew Polenzani sang with a smooth, round tone, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky was brilliant as ever in the title role. Irina Lungu had a triumphant debut as an endearing and ardently-sung Gilda, and equally impressive was Pablo Heras-Casado’s debut as conductor. Under his baton, Verdi became familiar again, echoing and answering himself, splashing and flashing in time with the lights. Mr Heras-Casado coaxed effulgent sounds from the orchestra (these sounds glowed slightly less ostentatiously than the sets). The Act III quartet was the strongest scene of the evening, with lovely singing from Mr Hvorostovsky, Mr Polenzani, and Ms Lungu, in addition to Oksana Volkova as a smoldering Maddalena. The singers and the musicians came together so wonderfully that an otherwise troublesome production was mostly enjoyable. If you closed your eyes, you could leave Vegas and get lost in Verdi.

***11